The most satisfied associates: the leading firms 2017
In the 2017 survey, associates gave a rating for the factors that contribute toward their happiness. We compiled the results. Here are the top 40 firms.
LEADING the chart for associate satisfaction is Seward & Kissel, an unassuming New York firm specializing in shipping finance and hedge funds. Most striking about Seward’s achievement is that the firm has done nothing particularly showy to get to the top of the table. In fact its formula for satisfaction is a no-brainer: associates got a kick out of the work and enjoyed being with their colleagues. Our sources were attracted to a place with a “boutique firm feel that still does high-speed work. I think it's our biggest selling point.”
Our research last year showed that niche practices make associates happier. This is true of Seward & Kissel, IP specialists Finnegan in second place, and our third place firm MoFo – a much broader firm but with the IP/tech slant providing the intrigue for associates. And throughout this top 40, the pull of the niche practice area stands out, from advertising litigators Kramer Levin to heathcare experts Waller.
'Associates at Gibson Dunn helped us understand how high pressure and happiness can coexist...'
“Its reputation made me want to come here,” declared a Finnegan associate. “Year after year it's ranked as one of the top IP firms in the world.” Prestige is just a perception, of course, but to see the value in your work is the point from which prestige originates – and how valued or valuable you feel affects your satisfaction. To explore this, let's look at the firm in 10th place: Cravath. When we interviewed associates, the firm's formidable reputation was a “source of pride” to its juniors, who explained that this factor alone motivated them – “absolutely no one here shies away from working extremely hard.” The famous Cravath business model endows junior associates with considerable self-worth: “I was amazed at the level of responsibility,” recounted one source.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most fearsome names in BigLaw pepper this top 40 – Skadden, Gibson Dunn, Latham, Clifford Chance, Milbank, Debevoise, Kirkland, Simpson Thacher – all global leaders where you might expect associate satisfaction to play second fiddle to results and billing. But associates at Gibson Dunn helped us understand how high pressure and happiness can coexist: “Everyone here is so smart and has something to teach you all the time. The people and the work keep me on my toes, but at the same time it's a warm place – ego is checked at the door!”
Associates among these high-achieving firms generally felt their firms bucked the BigLaw stereotypes: “In the law there's a lot of competition, and often a dog eat dog attitude, but I've never felt it within the firm,” reflected one from Gibson Dunn. “There are some competitive, intense people here but their energies are directed toward the other side!”
“I'm respected as a human being and not just an hours generator. If I have to work on weekends it is not because I feel it is expected of me, but because it is required." – Perkins Coie associate
Throughout this guide you’ll see how a firm’s structure, or the way it generates income, has a direct impact on its culture. Take Clifford Chance (in at 4th) as an example: “We're not trying to be a typical New York firm,” insisted a junior. “We're intentionally operating a different model: here the partners are not directly competing against one another and all of the groups share profits.” This model at the British firm appears to build “a strong sense of community. We share the work and we get along – no one gets jealous.” Finnegan associates found a similar environment: “I feel really comfortable here. We have a team mentality and everyone wants each other to succeed.”
The Human League
All associates acknowledge the pressures of BigLaw, but those at MoFo felt the firm had found a balance: “We're serious when we need to be, but the firm in general tends to be laid back and feels very human.” At Perkins Coie “there aren't any petty tyrants,” reported associates. “I'm respected as a human being and not just an hours generator. If I have to work on weekends it is not because I feel it is expected of me, but because it is required. Whenever it's tough there's an appreciation for the work we do.”
“We have a very open and accepting environment where people feel comfortable and make an effort to be inclusive,” a Perkins Coie lawyer surmised. “Junior and mid-level associates constantly put pressure on management to do more than they're doing.” Empowering your associates clearly pays off at this firm, which also scores highly for its attitude to diversity. Similarly, Chicagoan Jenner & Block is famous for the premium it puts on pro bono and diversity – “the only thing not tolerated is intolerance!” – joked associates, who raved about their firm during our calls with them.
From all these firms we learn that culture is everything. If a law firm is happy in its own skin, the junior associates are too. If a firm recognizes that humans are its only commodity, humanity defines its culture – a trait common to all the firms in this table.
To compile these results we asked associates to rate how happy they were, how stressed they were, how much their firm is worth to them on their resumes, how long they intend to stay, how strongly they’d recommend their firm, and whether the salary justified the dedication required. The firms listed are those demonstrating excellent performance.